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Reformation and Art in the 16th Century

Updated on August 20, 2020
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Fatema is a student with keen interest in sociology and the functioning and history of social and economic institutions of societies.

Through the whole of the first millennium, much of Western Europe was united under the Christian dome of the Roman Catholic Church. This spiritual, religious, and cultural unity was splintered by the Reformation commenced by Augustinian Monk Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century. Initiating in Germany, it spread rapidly throughout Europe. It began as a response to the corrupt and administratively abusive ways of the Catholic Church, specifically, the use and abuse of indulgences, which were official pardons bought from the Church. The Reformation led to the formation of Protestantism, which held a vastly different ideal of spirituality and nearness to God, from that of the Catholic Church (Wisse 2000). This split in religious beliefs impacted many other aspects of society, with one of them being art and architecture.

Martin Luther (10 November 1483-18 February 1546) A German professor of theology, priest, monk, and composer
Martin Luther (10 November 1483-18 February 1546) A German professor of theology, priest, monk, and composer

Art and architecture before the Reformation was unanimously financed by the Catholic Church. However, the rise of Protestantism in different regions of Europe led to differences in patronages and Church association. This, along with the separate ideals of spirituality brought forth stylistic and thematic changes art. Thus, giving rise to two distinct art movements simultaneously: Reformation and Counter Reformation (Wisse 2000). Dominant in the North, where power had gradually shifted from religious to secular authorities due to Protestantism, Reformation art was characterized by a rejection of Catholic imagery. Hence, upon Reformation, there was an abrupt cessation to the portrayal of biblical themes with a dramatic flair and stylized forms, and a turn to Realism instead. Instead of idealizing the creation of Christ, or the crucifixion itself, artists of reformation painted the world realistically, without glorifying any feature/creation and showing things as they really are (Wilsey 2006, 31-54). Counter Reformation, which was dominant in the South, was initiated to counter the developing values and traditions of the Protestant North and reaffirm its Catholic doctrines (Wisse 2000). The artistic developments in these two movements, especially in the late 16th to 17th century onward formed a new artistic style known as Baroque (1600-1750), with its complexity heightened by religious differences. The specific characteristics discussed above are found in artworks of both these opposing religious movements.

Due to the secularization of authority in the Protestant North, painting themes and subjects ranged from landscapes and still life, to domestic and historic scenes. One such example of a Reformation painting is “Allegory of the Art of Painting” (1666) by Jan Vermeer. This Baroque painting, just as many other Dutch paintings by Vermeer, specializes in portraying a domestic environment.

Allegory of the Art of Painting
Allegory of the Art of Painting | Source

The artist himself is present in the painting with his back is to the viewer, as he appears to be heavily engrossed in his work. He seems to be painting the woman standing before him, wearing a laurel wreath and holding a book and trumpet (Kliener 2012, 582-613). The domestic and homely nature of the space is highlighted not only by the wooden furniture (stools and easels) and the chandelier, but rather through the simplicity of all the elements in the space. From the simple furniture and flooring to the plain walls, the space was likely to evoke relatibility, if viewed by a man of average means during that time. Hence, there is no dramatization or deliberate portrayal of extravagance. The ultimate mark of domesticity and homeliness is the partially drawn drapery in the foreground that automatically distances the viewer from the studio space in the painting, along with separating the rest of the implied domestic space from the studio. As a result of the half drawn drapery, the interior space beyond it is instinctively considered intimate and private, as our spaces found in homes (Kliener 2012, 582-613). Despite the chandelier above, the viewer can tell upon first glance that the main source of light is sunlight, pouring in through a window that probably lies on the left wall of the room. This feature is once again, very much aligned with the characteristic simple and realist nature of Reformation paintings. That is because instead of using strong light and shadow (chiaroscuro) to create an intense environment or depicting an artificial light source as seen in Italian Renaissance paintings, natural light existing in that moment has been captured by Vermeer. This adds a sense of time to the day, while also creating a soft and tranquil atmosphere, which emits the ordinariness of the day and emphasizes upon the realist nature of the painting.

The two figurative forms in the paintings have little to no exaggeration. Although relatively small, the figures have not been painted leaner and taller to make them more attractive. Moreover, keeping in mind the distance, no facial feature of the woman seems to have been altered or made pointedly prominent to enhance her beauty, unlike the Italian Renaissance paintings which often depicted an idealized form of beauty. This sense of realism running through the painting makes it a typical Reformation artwork embodying the core values of Protestant art, which emphasize on glorifying God through a depiction of His creations in their natural beauty. An important detail that highlights the socio-political situation of the time is the tapestry of the European map hanging on the wall behind the woman. The map subtly hints at the conflict that divided Europe in that time.

While paintings divulged in different themes in the North as a result of Reformation, religious subjects were explored by painters to significant extent in the Northern Netherlands. However, instead of following the style and grandiose imagery of the previous centuries, the painters adopted the Protestant values and beliefs about spirituality in their art works. One such painting is “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1665) by Dutch artist Rembrandt Van Rijn. Although religious paintings with Biblical themes were not very popular in the North, as opposed to before during the Renaissance, they still held great prestige. As a result Rembrandt, a prolific painter as it is, produced the aforementioned painting, along with many others, in his own style.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, 'Rembrandt'
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 'Rembrandt' | Source

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" is based on a Biblical story, where the younger of two sons leaves his home and wastes his wealth on a life of sin. However, once hit by poverty and hunger, he sees the error of his ways and returns home. The painting picks up from this point and depicts the forgiving father embrace his son, who crouches and weeps before him. The three witnesses that are embedded in shadow on the left, note the lessons of mercy (Kliener 2012, 582-613). The religious tale depicted in the painting is very close to the values of Protestantism. While the Catholics believed that one needed intermediaries (Virgin Mary, saints) to connect with God, the Protestant’s disagreement stemmed from their belief that ordinary humans are capable of having a personal relationship and communication with God (UK Essays 2018). This belief is depicted in the painting, where the son’s journey from sin to atonement appears to be a personal struggle assisted only by his father’s forgiveness, as opposed to larger than life, religious symbols and figures.

Light, which is diffused in color and shade illuminate the father and son, directing the viewer accordingly. The viewer’s gaze is first directed to the tender face of the old man, where the illumination is strongest. Once again, the melancholic yet gentle face of the father appears to have no exaggeration, with features and subtle expression only being illuminated by the light. Although Dutch paintings produced after the 16th century such as these are said to be influenced more by Counter Reformation than Protestant reformation, this painting, despite its religious elements, seems to lean more towards the latter school of thought. That is because its religious connotations are not depicted through triumphant heavenly figures. Rather, the ordinary human figures and clear imagery (as opposed to chaotic of the Italian Renaissance) emphasize the personal trajectory of the Son’s journey, and thus, align with the Protestant values of spirituality.

The paintings discussed above vary significantly in style and subject matter, despite being produced by Dutch artists. This implies that artists’ styles and preferences brought forth diverse variation in the paintings produced despite belonging under the umbrella of Protestant Reformation.

While the Protestant Reformation continued to dissent their values, beliefs and philosophy through art, the Catholic Church in the South attempted to negate, or counter these by commissioning religiously charged artworks that glorified and celebrated Catholic beliefs. Thus, these art works stand at the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to the realism and diversity in theme and style of Reformation paintings. As a result of this process of "Counter Reformation", a new style emerged in the South which radically transformed High Renaissance. The latter evolved and gave way to Mannerism (Late Renaissance), a style characterized by special complexity, artificiality, and affectation. This style enabled artists to bring forth a new form of intensity to their paintings (The Catholic Reformation, 505-25).

A painting strongly influenced by Counter Reformation was “The Lamentation” (1593) by Scipione Pulzone in Rome. It was painted for the Passion of the Christ in the Jesuit Church of Gesu, Rome.

The Lamentation (1593)
The Lamentation (1593) | Source

The Crucifixion of Christ is the main focus of the painting, with the idealistic image of Christ in the center of the picture plane, drawing the viewer’s attention in. The rendering of Christ, and the figures around him have been done in a highly detailed and dramatic manner, to make them appear life like and awe inspiring, and thus, propagate the Catholic faith. This is seen in the careful details of the figures and robes, and the emotive facial expressions. Apart from that, elements such as “tears of Virgin, the crown of thorns, and the pallor of the Christ’s body” add a dramatic and theatrical flair to the overall painting, by making the mood more sentimental. This emotionally charged atmosphere is further enhanced by the artificial spotlight cast on Christ and the figures holding him in contrast to the relatively darker background (UK Essays 2018). This dramatic and glorified representation of Christ aims to instill awe and remorse in a Christian viewer. Hence, not only does this enable them to compete against the art produced in the North, and emphasize the Catholic Church’s glory, but also prevent Protestant beliefs from infiltrating the South. The features of this painting belong to the style and characteristics of High Renaissance, as well as the evolved, Mannerism style.

The influence of Counter Reformation is also seen on the architectural evolution of the South, most specifically, during the Baroque period. An example of this is the rebuilding of the church “Santa Maria in Vellicella” in the late 16th century (1575-1605). The Santa Maria is similar to other Counter Reformation Churches in Rome, such as the “Jesuits’ Il Gesu” and Sant’ Ignazio.

Exterior of Santa Maria
Exterior of Santa Maria | Source
Interior of Santa Maria
Interior of Santa Maria | Source

Santa Maria has a double storied, tripartite facade with scrolls, in order to contradict the white washed plane facades of Protestant Churches. Its interior appears to be a huge hall-like nave, with a shallow apse and five lateral chapels. These features were typical of Reformation Churches. The interior is embellished entirely with stucco and gold painted angels and spiraling clouds, with swirling blue and red draperies (Hager, N.A.). Moreover, the vaults over the nave are lined with frescoes. Such wealth of embellishments add richness not only to the interior of the physical church, but rather, to the institution and religion of the Catholic Church itself, while also highlighting its grandiose and expressionistic values. These renovations and embellishments imply the all-encompassing impact of the Counter Reformation on multiple facets of art and design

Detail of the embellishments
Detail of the embellishments | Source

While the Reformation may have splintered the Christen faith and transformed its meanings, beliefs and values entirely for the future centuries, it led to monumental developments in art and architecture. From the diversity in painting styles between different nations in Europe to massive architectural restorations in the South, a rich and diverse landscape of European art was formed during the 16th and 17th centuries. The development of a completely new artistic epoch as a result is testament to the wealth of the art produced, during the otherwise bleak socio political atmosphere.


“Depictions of the Reformation in Art.” UK Essays. 2nd May 2018. Accessed November 15, 2018.

Hager, June. “La Chiesa Nuova.” Italy Online. Accessed November 15, 2018.

Kliener, Fred. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Western Perspective. 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012.

“The Catholic Reformation and the Baroque Style.” In N/A, 505–25. Accessed November 15, 2018.

Wilsey, John. “The Impact of the Reformation on Fine Arts.” Liberty University, Spring 2006, 31–54.

Wisse, Author: Jacob. “The Reformation" in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020. Accessed November 14, 2018.

© 2020 Fatema


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